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With ‘The Rundown,’ Robin Thede adds a smart new perspective to late-night

Feminist, anti-racist, quick-moving and funny, the premiere on BET showed plenty of promise

It’s only one episode, but I can’t wait to see what else is in the works for The Rundown with Robin Thede, BET’s newest foray into late-night comedy.

The Rundown, a weekly show hosted by former The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore head writer Robin Thede, premiered Thursday night with a barrage of sharp, sophisticated, fearless jokes that took aim at the NFL and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, Ben Carson, Betsy DeVos, Ballers, Eminem and, of course, the president.

“Whatever happened to civility?” she asks in response to a clip of a cable news anchor asking the same because Eminem called the president a racist.

“President Trump.”

Thede made television history when she became the first black woman to be head writer of a late-night show when she joined The Nightly Show. Now, she joins Samantha Bee (TBS) and Chelsea Handler (Netflix) to form a triumvirate of women in late-night comedy. Given the dearth of women in late-night — for a while before Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, the late-night comedy landscape was just a sea of testosterone — Thede’s splash is broadly welcome, including by Bee. The Full Frontal host sent Thede and her staff celebratory treats to mark the newest addition to the 11 p.m. time slot.

Like Bee, Thede stands in the middle of a modern-looking set to deliver a fast-paced monologue set off with visual aids. (The shows are produced by the same company, Jax Media.) For the premiere, she rocked an expertly tailored velvet green pantsuit, black camisole and heels. With its weekly schedule, The Rundown feels primed to offer the sort of insights that are harder to achieve when you’re churning out four or five episodes per week. But like Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Full Frontal, The Rundown will have to scramble to cover can’t-miss stories that break within hours of the show’s taping.

Thursday night’s premiere was a mix of taped segments and newsy commentary. Thede opened with a sketch in which she played a woman in a restaurant who starts out reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me but ends up desperately trying to catch the romantic attention of a guy who turns out to be a black Trump supporter. “He’s sell-out my-principles-fine,” Thede proclaims as she tosses the book in favor of a MAGA hat, writes “LOCK HER UP” on a napkin and magically produces a tiki torch. When that’s not enough to overcome his general repulsion to black women, Thede pulls out the big artillery: a tattoo gun and an artist to inscribe her with a Confederate flag. She finally catches his eye, but closer inspection reveals a wedding ring.

“The Rundown with Robin Thede” episode 101.

Eric Liebowitz/BET

“Ugh,” she says to the tattoo artist. “Can you turn that into a Kaepernick jersey or something?”

The show also featured a taped bodega concert from rapper Duckwrth that reminded me just how much I miss the musical segments from Chappelle’s Show. Thede closed with her best joke, a bit drawn from former first lady Michelle Obama’s recent appearance at the Pennsylvania Conference for Women in Philadelphia. Thede said Obama “dragged You-Know-Who by his bad lace front” next to a screen deeming her “First Lady of Shady.”

It takes time for late-night shows, especially weekly ones, to find their grooves. But Thede’s strong first night left me eager to see what else she and her writing staff have in store. From the first show, I’m comfortable extrapolating this much: It’ll be black as hell, and it’ll almost certainly be funny too.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.